Protests are growing in the Sudan in response to the announcement last week by the government of President Omar Hassan Al Bashir that fuel subsidies will be discontinued, leading inevitably to even more increases in the cost of food and other things. Voices are now being heard for Al Bashir to be ousted from power.
Sudan’s problems intensified last year when its southern provinces formally declared independence as the Republic of South Sudan after decades of war. Eighty percent of Sudan’s oilfields, the major source of export earnings, ended up in South Sudan, but could only be shipped to world markets, including especially China, which is a major investor in oil in both countries, through pipelines that run from South Sudan northeastwards through Sudan to the Red Sea port of Port Sudan. The major refineries and other processing units are also in Sudan.
A dispute quickly arose over how much Sudan could charge South Sudan for the use of the pipelines. The two countries could not agree on a price. Sudan wanted to charge a fee of $36 per barrel (later lowered to $32.20), and South Sudan thought $1 per barrel was fair, so Sudan began to simply seize part of the oil and sell it itself. In response to this, the South Sudan government of President Salva Kiir stopped all oil exports in January, cutting a huge hole in Sudan’s income (and South Sudan’s). This, in turn, led to fighting along the border earlier this year.
That has died down, but the main conflict remains and the oil is not flowing. South Sudan has approached neighboring Kenya to explore the development of a new pipeline to run from South Sudan through Kenya to the port of Lamu on the Indian Ocean coast, and perhaps another one going through Djibouti. This would allow South Sudan to cut off all oil shipments through Sudan eventually, leaving the latter nation high and dry and in bad economic straights.
The new protests erupted when the government in Khartoum announced that, to plug a huge gap in the budget, subsidies for fuel would be phased out. In addition, public transportation fares are going up 35 percent in the context of 30 percent inflation. Salary increases had been announced, but these will be drowned by the increase in the cost of living.
The Al Bashir government is an international pariah, and its head is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes he is accused of in the Darfur conflict. Internally, he and his party, the National People’s Congress, are opposed by a number of forces ranging from the Sudanese Communist Party to Islamic political parties such as the Popular Congress Party (PCP) of former Al Bashir ally Hassan al-Turabi, and the Umma Party. The Communist Party participates in a broad front called the National Consensus Forces, which also includes the PCP and others, and which is openly calling for the Al Bashir government to be removed. The opposition points out that Al Bashir’s policies have isolated Sudan and led to constant wars within the country. They want a government brought in that will settle both internal and external conflicts, get the oil flowing again and divert needed resources from the bloated military. But another opposition group, the Umma National Party, has called for a temporary military government to replace Al Bashir.
There are also several illegal armed opposition groups.
There have been protest demonstrations against Al Bashir’s government for more than a year, but these have been mostly small scale and confined to university students in Khartoum. After prayers on Friday, larger demonstrations were seen in more places, now involving sectors beyond the students. The government has been hitting back with various repressive tactics including the jailing of protesters, and has been trying to suppress the opposition press, including the Communist Party’s newspaper al Midan.
The anger caused by the increases in fuel and food costs may bring Sudan, belatedly, into the “Arab Spring.”
Photo: Protest in Sudan, taken from video.